MACKEY: Strange Humors (2003). DAUGHERTY: Raise the Roof (2003/2007). Brooklyn Bridge (2005). SYLER: The Hound of Heaven (1988).
Maureen Hurd (clarinet); Todd Quinlan (timpani); Rutgers Wind Ensemble/William Berz.
Naxos 8.572529 TT: 65:22.

Mostly good performances, with an outstanding Mackey. Another entry in Naxos's Wind Band Classics series, this one features American composers and the Rutgers Wind Ensemble.

The program begins with John Mackey's Strange Humors, a piece inspired by African drumming. However, to me it sounds Afro-Cuban -- not all that big a stretch, I admit. Polyrhythms get the feet moving like crazy and the piece builds to a terrific climax. For bands who can get through this, it should prove a classic.

James Syler, a composer new to me, studied with the legendary (among bandpeople) Alfred Reed. I've never been a fan of The Hound of Heaven or of its poet, Francis Thompson. He had an undoubted gift for the telling phrase ("Love is a many-splendored thing," probably the best known), but his sentimental poetic sensibility puts me off. His Hound of Heaven, about God pursuing the errant soul out of love, strikes me as the gush of a reformed addict (which he was) who's found Jesus and can't wait to tell you about it. To be fair, G. K. Chesterton thought Thomson the most remarkable poet of his time, the most promising since Browning, and Chesterton had read and admired Thomas Hardy, although he opposed Hardy's world-view. Syler tries a tone poem which reproduces the mood of the text's major sections. It opens splendidly, capturing the fear of the prey as it flees the hound through a nightmare city. It quickly loses interest from there, as does the poem itself, descending into sentimental platitudes. It comes across as young man's music (Syler wrote it in his 20s), consciously striving for spiritual significance, so wanting to be taken seriously.

Daugherty becomes significant first because he expresses mainly himself rather than what he ought to feel to become (in the words of James Joyce) the Singer of His Race and second, because he has the musical chops to involve a listener. Raise the Roof, essentially a Konzertstück for timpani, exists in its original form for orchestra. In 2007, Daugherty arranged it for timpani and band. The timpani part, stunningly virtuosic, not only puts the soloist through the usual wham-boks but requires him to play melody. Two themes comprise the entire work -- one highly rhythmic; the other chant-like. Daugherty first develops the two themes separately, but as the piece goes on, they clearly begin to twist around each other through counterpoint that leaves the listener agape.

Brooklyn Bridge, a clarinet concerto, takes "the steel harp" as its central conceit. Its four movements -- "East," "South," "North," and "West" -- consist of musical impressions of the views from the bridge (which pedestrians can walk across) in those directions. "East" begins with dawn over Brooklyn and Brooklyn Heights, as the city wakes up and starts moving. "South" shows us the calm of the Statue of Liberty in the harbor. "West" depicts the financial district and the shore that used to be dominated by the World Trade Center. The clarinet plays a lonely cadenza throughout, as if remembering. "North" gives us, according to the composer, Artie Shaw in the glory days of Rockefeller Center's Rainbow Room. Apparently, the joint jumps with Latin Swing. I felt as if I were in a Forties movie. The difference between Hound of Heaven and Brooklyn Bridge is the difference between Poesy and Poetry or, in Mark Twain's phrase, the lightning-bug and the lightning.

I doubt anybody could save the Hound, so no foul on the performers, who at least open well with the score's A material. The Rutgers band does best on the Mackey, which shows them off as a cracking good ensemble. They do fine, but not great, on the rest. Raise the Roof gets a more exciting run from Neeme Järvi and the Detroit Symphony on Naxos 8.559372. Berz and Rutgers seem stodgy in comparison. Timpanist Todd Quinlan does okay, but Brian Jones with the Detroit performs miracles. Like a stage magician, Jones makes you wonder how he carries it off. With Quinlan, you hear the small portamenti that betray his pedal-work on the timpani melodies. They give Brooklyn Bridge a solid account, with an especially-exciting finale, but, like soloist Maureen Hurd, you can imagine something better. Nevertheless, three wonderful scores at Naxos prices.

S.G.S. (April 2011)